He was about five-feet-ten inches tall, and he weighed about one- hundred-eighty pounds. He looked like an athlete; had the smooth, graceful, gliding walk of a man who was confident and sure. He was friendly and not the least threatening, which is often the case with serious students of the martial arts. His skin was so dark it almost looked blue, a very African-looking kind of dark. He was a soldier so he kept his hair neatly trimmed, no facial hair, and looked to be in his mid-twenties, although I knew he was closing in on forty.
He was a buck sergeant (three stripes to those of you who aren't familiar)...and a good one. As a senior driver, he set a great example of proficiency in his specialty as well as the general soldier skills we all had to master. He mentored the younger drivers in caring for and operating their trucks, and set high standards in all the other areas as well: PT Tests, rifle qualification, crew-served weapons, etc. It's already too late to make a long story short, but if I were going to design a perfect soldier, this young man came danged close.
Our unit was tasked to two separate missions; first and foremost was the direct support of the 7th Infantry Division; second was the general support of the western region of the Army's depot system. Our first mission required us to move equipment for the 7th ID all over the western USA, to whatever training area they were using at the time. The second mission had us moving all classes of cargo from one depot to another all over the same area. The missions kept us busy; and they kept us flexible. A mission could require anywhere from one to sixty trucks at a time. There always had to be someone in charge of each group, someone who was reliable, mature, and responsible. We didn't like to send three or four trucks out with just a buck sergeant in charge, especially if they were going to be gone for several days, but it had to happen on occasion. If we had six missions running and only four senior NCOs, well...someone had to stepup. This young sergeant I was telling you about was one who could do the job with no supervision...and do it well.
I watched him in his Dojo one afternoon. He was good. I've spent some time in Dojos before and I can recognize a special kind of "good" ...and he had it. Lightning fast, deceptively smooth with a ferocious snap in each technique. And smiling. Always smiling.
I got a call one Saturday afternoon; this sergeant had collapsed in the barracks and the medics were taking him to the hospital. I was on my way to Silas B. Hayes Army Hospital in just a very few minutes. I only lived about fifteen minutes from the hospital, but by the time I got there, found a place to park (Saturdays at the ER are busy) and got inside to find out where he was being treated, he was gone. I ran into his Squad Leader in the ER waiting room and he told me that they were taking him to Letterman, a huge Army medical complex in San Francisco. I started making noises about driving up there and was informed that he would be in ICU and we would not be able to see him for at least 24 hours...probably more. The ER doc told P-woody, the Squad Leader, that they suspected the man had had a stroke and we would just be in the way; in a day or two we could get in to see him. It is a hundred-mile drive from Monterey to San Francisco,enough to discourage wasting a trip. So we all went home and waited for some kind of word.
Tuesday came around and we hadn't heard anything from the medics, so I decided to drive up and check things out. When I arrived at Letterman, started a couple of arguments about my relationship with the patient, and finally got to see him, he was up and walking on crutches. Smiling.
He had suffered a pretty severe stroke that had left most of his left side paralyzed. He was just coming back from physical therapy, where he had spent a couple of hours trying to learn how to plant his "dead" left leg so he could kick with his right. He chuckled and told me he had spent a lot of the first hour learning how to stand back up after collapsing. But he felt like he was getting the hang of it and figured he'd be back in the Dojo in a month or less.
The docs, it seemed, had very mixed emotions about his self-styled physical therapy...there was still a threat of further strokes which could mean further damage. No one could say if the paralysis was going to be permanent, temporary, get better, get worse. But the sergeant wasn't letting that affect his training...he was a soldier and soldiers had to stay fit and be ready to do their best. I asked if anyone had mentioned medical retirement or was it too soon to think about that. He smiled. He asked if I was trying to get rid of him.
The hundred miles proved to be too much of an obstacle and I didn't visit him again right away. P-woody went back a couple of times. The second stroke was worse than the first and they shipped him to a military hospital closer to his home for recovery. That was the last I heard of him. If he was so special, why didn't I make a greater effort to see him? I asked that question a few million times. Oh, let me tell you, I have my excuses and some of them are pretty good, too. But I still feel guilty about it sometimes, as if I could do anything to ward off a stroke.
Over a twenty-six year military career that spanned three continents, four decades, and countless nights sleeping in the open under stars or rain or snow, I met a lot of guys. Thousands, I'd bet. You just can't keep track of them all; it just isn't possible...and probably not a good idea, either. There is an axiom among senior NCOs that five percent of your people eat up ninety-five percent of your time. It is pretty accurate, too. The screw-ups and malcontents take most of your time and the really good people rarely get more than a nod, no matter how valuable they are to you or the unit. I tried hard to break out of that axiom, tried hard to let the good guys know how much I appreciated them...but there was always some minor crisis that had to have my attention and no matter how good my intentions were, I couldn't always make it happen.
It's Memorial Day weekend and this is a soldier's story...a good soldier.